By Lenny Bernstein and Lena H. Sun,
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allegedly ordered the destruction of an email written by a top Trump administration health official who was seeking changes in a scientific report on the coronavirus’s risk to children, the head of a congressional oversight subcommittee charged Thursday.
In a letter to CDC Director Robert R. Redfield and his superior, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) expressed “serious concern about what may be deliberate efforts by the Trump Administration to conceal and destroy evidence that senior political appointees interfered with career officials’ response to the coronavirus crisis at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
The report was not altered or withdrawn. But Clyburn, chairman of the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, cited an interview three days ago with the editor of the CDC’s most authoritative publication, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, known as MMWR. Charlotte Kent, editor in chief of that report, told investigators that while on vacation in August, she received instructions to delete the email written by Paul Alexander, a senior adviser to Azar.
When Kent went to locate the email, it had already been deleted, she said, according to a transcript of the interview provided by Clyburn. When she inquired about who had ordered its deletion, she was told the instructions had come down from Redfield through the chain of command.
“I heard from [REDACTED], who, as I understood, heard from Dr. [Michael F.] Iademarco, who heard from Dr. Redfield to delete it,” Kent told the investigators, according to the transcript. Iademarco is director of the Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology and Laboratory Services at the CDC.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon through HHS, Redfield said: “Regarding the email in question, I instructed CDC staff to ignore Dr. Alexander’s comments. As I testified before Congress, I am fully committed to maintaining the independence of the MMWR, and I stand by that statement.”
The subcommittee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), issued a statement disputing Clyburn’s charges. Scalise said that the letter “drastically mischaracterizes Dr. Kent’s interview” and that Democrats on the panel “continue to search for illusory evidence” of obstruction by Trump administration officials.
Kent declined to comment to The Washington Post.
Clyburn’s letter also asserted that HHS blocked other top CDC officials from testifying to the committee this week and has delayed sending requested documents for many months.
Clyburn also charged that an edition of the MMWR on a coronavirus outbreak at a Georgia summer camp was held up for two days, until after Redfield had testify to Clyburn’s committee on July 31.
HHS said in a statement that the “subcommittee’s characterization of the conversation with Dr. Kent is irresponsible. We urge the subcommittee to release the transcript in full, which will show that during her testimony Dr. Kent repeatedly said there was no political interference in the MMWR process.
“Moreover, during the interview referenced in the letter, a staff member on the subcommittee chose to violate basic common practices of attorney-client privilege that protect the interests of the department, but more importantly the witness. Despite HHS working diligently to accommodate the select subcommittee’s many requests, the subcommittee is not operating in good faith.”
Efforts by Alexander and his supervisor at HHS, Michael Caputo, to change, delay and block CDC advice to the public on the pandemic were reported this summer, during a period of battles between the Trump administration, which was seeking to reopen the country, and the career scientists at the CDC.
In the end, language in the MMWR was not altered, nor was the report taken down, according to a former CDC official with specific knowledge of the event who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations at the time.
“That did not happen,” the former official said. Political appointees at HHS and the White House pressured the CDC to change guidance and news releases, the official said, but “the MMWR is where the line was drawn.”
Alexander, in particular, was adamant that CDC scientists were reporting information in order to harm the administration’s efforts. According to Clyburn, the Aug. 8 email that Redfield allegedly sought to delete read, in part: “CDC tried to report as if once kids get together, there will be spread and this will impact school reopening. . . . Very misleading by CDC and shame on them. Their aim is clear. . . . This is designed to hurt this [president] for their reasons which I am not interested in.”
The committee said it is seeking to interview Redfield by Dec. 17 and still wants to speak with four other CDC officials: Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director; Nina Witkofsky, acting chief of staff; Trey Moeller, acting deputy chief of staff; and Kate Galatas, acting associate director for communications.
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